Camas schools superintendent: ‘It’s hard to say goodbye’

After a decade as overseeing the Camas School District, Jeff Snell will leave his position at the end of this school year to begin a new role as superintendent of the Vancouver Public Schools district

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Camas School District superintendent Jeff Snell greets new students during the first day of school at Discovery High School on Sept. 4, 2018. (Photo courtesy of The Columbian files)

After leading the Camas School District through a decade worth of ups and downs, Camas schools superintendent Jeff Snell has announced he will step down at the end of the 2020-21 school year to take a new position as superintendent of the Vancouver Public Schools district.

“I want to say ‘thank you’ to the people here who have partnered with our district during my time as superintendent,” Snell told the Post-Record. “Being a superintendent and raising kids in the same district can have some challenges, but I just can’t think of a better experience and that’s because of the community here. I hope I’ve been able to bring some value to them, too … I hope I’ve been able to help their children.”

Snell, who served as the deputy superintendent of Camas schools from 2011 to 2016 and replaced retiring superintendent Mike Nerland in 2016, is set to begin his new position in Vancouver in July.

Over the past decade, Snell has led the district through several major transitions, including the implementation of the district’s $119.7 million construction bond, the opening of three new schools — Odyssey Middle School in 2016 and Lacamas Lake Elementary School and Discovery High School in 2018 — an $8 million budget shortfall in 2019 and a yearlong pandemic that has forced Camas educators and families to rethink everything they knew about “going to school.”

The Vancouver school board announced its unanimous decision on March 3, following interviews with finalists in executive session.

“We were honored to have two highly qualified candidates who could bring so much experience and leadership to our district, knowing that no matter what decision we made, we couldn’t go wrong,” Vancouver school board president Kyle Sproul stated in a news release. “The first thing that strikes you when you meet Dr. Snell is his empathy for others and his passion for inclusion. When you add in his past experience in Vancouver Public Schools and his deep connection to our local community, it became clear that he was the best choice to lead our district in this next chapter.”

The Vancouver district’s search for a new superintendent began in November 2020 and included virtual community forums and a total of 34 applicants. The school board narrowed that nationwide applicant pool down to 10 and selected four semifinalists earlier this year, then two finalists who met with the board in-person the first week of March.

Snell, who received his bachelor of science in mathematics education from Boston University and his master’s degree in educational leadership and doctorate of education degree from Washington State University, has more than 25 years experience in education as a math teacher, principal and superintendent.

Snell said he was focused on helping Camas schools weather the pandemic and reopen classrooms when Vancouver school leaders reached out to him in the fall.

“I wasn’t looking around. I was trying to concentrate on what was going on here,” Snell said. “But when I got the call, I connected back to my first 15 years as an educator (in the Vancouver district) and as a former Fort Vancouver High principal … and I felt like I had more work to do there.”

Saying goodbye to the Camas School District will be tough, Snell admitted.

He and his wife, Suzie Snell, a guidance counselor in the Vancouver School District, live in Camas. And their three children — Mackenzie and Stephen, twins in their first year of college at the University of Washington, and Micah, a fifth-grader who inspired Micah’s Miles, the family’s nonprofit organization dedicated to building more inclusive communities — are all products of the Camas school system.

“It’s hard to say goodbye,” Snell said. “I have so many fond memories.”

Asked what he considers his career highlights in Camas, Snell pointed to the district’s move from half-day to full-day kindergarten, the creation of a professional development learning system for educators and staff, the opening of the district’s two projects based learning schools — Odyssey Middle and Discovery High — the district’s purchase of the former UL (Underwriters Laboratories) campus and the way the school board, staff and community has responded to the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have had some tough times,” Snell said, “but we were fortunate to have a great school board and people who are really humble in their leadership … who are patient and thoughtful and ask great questions. You can see that (the board members) care about the community as a whole.”

Snell said he has always strived to provide the school board with information to help them make tough decisions.

“You can’t go through a crisis with an elected school board that doesn’t have the interests of the community first,” Snell said, adding that the current school board members in Camas “are inspirational and drive me to be a better leader all the time.”

Snell also credited Camas teachers and school staff with helping the district make it through a global pandemic that forced educators, students and families to adjust to remote learning.

“I’ve tried to empower staff through the crisis,” Snell said. “Our teachers have had to transform their (working) conditions during the pandemic … and that’s really tough.”

Even though it’s hard to say goodbye to the Camas district, Snell said he’s excited about what lies ahead in his career.

“My grandpa used to tell me, ‘Do the best you can with whatever opportunities you’ve been given, (even if) those opportunities aren’t what you think they should be,” Snell said.

“I am grateful for this opportunity to come back to Vancouver and serve the students, staff, and community,” Snell said.

As of this newspaper’s print deadline on March 10, the Camas School Board had not yet announced its plans for hiring a new superintendent, but did plan to meet in a closed executive session to discuss personnel issues on Thursday, March 11.

“There was a very clear succession plan in place when I was hired, but it’s different when someone is retiring,” Snell said, referring to his planned transition from deputy superintendent to superintendent in 2016. “I know (the board wants) to be thoughtful about it and I know they’re going to want to share that information sooner rather than later.”